Stories from Women's Empowerment

‘Wellness for All’ Won’t Be a Reality Until We Decolonize Yoga in the West

Kells McPhillips

Kells McPhillipsJuly 22, 2020

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Photo: Rebeckah Price; Graphics: Well+Good Creative

You’ve been hearing the term “decolonizing” as it pertains to most industries, but what does that mean for wellness? Fitness, spirituality, and other forms of well-being have been so whitewashed and commodified that they bar many people from participating at all, and rob the culture and traditions from so many others. But there are individuals trying to change that, and make all of us reexamine what it means to be well. 

Here, we chatted with Rebeckah Price, yoga teacher and the co-founder of The Well Collective: a community dedicated to decolonizing wellness by creating wellness by and for all. Price has a vision of communities that shape the offerings they need to continue their own journey toward well-being. And thus, The Well Collective’s work is constantly evolving. She is also the founder of i rise yoga, a space where women of color can make time for themselves.

Think about the last time you walked into a yoga class. What color bodies were in the room? Who was in the minority and who was in the majority? What race or ethnicity was the teacher? How did you feel entering the space? The 5,000-year-old wellness modality has its roots in the Indus-Sarasvati civilization in Northern India, but in 2020, the vast majority of those who practice the physical poses (the asanas) in the West are white. For those who are BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color), that means that walking into a studio often becomes an experience of seeing no bodies that look like their own, being in the minority, not seeing themselves in the teacher, and feeling othered—not centered—in a practice that’s supposed to act like a connective tissue between all people.

When Rebeckah Price started i rise yoga and wellness in Toronto back in 2015, she wanted to create a studio where “wellness for all” wasn’t a catchphrase, but a guiding principle. She set to work carving out a space free of the colonization she experienced upon walking into any other yoga business. “If you’re a BIPOC in the wellness space, some of the work that we’re doing is work that we’ve elected to do,” says Price. “For us, there’s often a pivot, a moment when we have an awakening and realize, again, ‘I’m the only person of color in the space.’ And so I started with i rise yoga specifically because my background is in community development and engagement, and I kept on seeing a really big disparity between people being people of color being connected to wellness.”

In the United States and Canada, yoga studios have expectations before someone even walks through the front door. (“You need $25 for class. A $60 yoga mat. A $150 pair of leggings.”) Price went to work creating a studio that broke that model and reflected the needs of yoga practitioners rather than the financially-lucrative demands of the $9 billion-dollar industry. “Traditionally for yoga studios you create your monthly membership, buy your mat, have your high-end yoga outfit, and then all the other things that go along with it. I made an effort to take all of that out and just provide the mats, the props, and the water. All you physically have to do is show up. If you can’t afford to pay, that’s okay,” says Price. “I’ve got you covered.” Then, she and her students can get down to talking about intersectionality and the trauma of racism and poverty.

You have the right to be well.” —Rebeckah Price, founder of The Well Collective

As you can probably imagine, letting folks in for free isn’t’ a common practice in yoga studios. You may see community classes here and there on a schedule, but they’re usually offered once a week at a specific time. You still need to pay for or bring a mat, and you still might not practice with people who look like you. The unwritten message is, you belong here once a week; Price’s message with The Well Collective is just, you belong here. “You have the right to be well. That’s how that conversation started, and I’ve been doing that for years: holding space for the community, having these conversations, and then along the way, what ends up happening is that more and more people are like, ‘I want to be in this space or I want to reclaim space for myself. I want to reclaim elements of my wellness.'”

Photo: Rebeckah Price

“The impacts of colonization are continuously rippling throughout the world. So to really reclaim these practices, to center them back to the community rather than the individual, to look at the practice of being well as a model of community care, that’s a way for us to redefine ourselves.” — Rebeckah Price

“When you’re the only person [of color] in the room and then you see someone who looks like you, then there’s like that affinity where you’re like, “Oh my god! Hey, cool.” [An] awakening,” says Price. “And so that the whole purpose of The Well Collective was to create a space where people could feel and see themselves being represented and have that affinity.” And, of course, to start a conversation about what decolonized yoga spaces could and should look like in the future. As a collective, Prices asks her community to get together and ask for questions.

1. Who is represented in wellness?

So you’re in downward dog and you’re looking around you—who do you see? Who gets to be well in this room?

2. Who represents wellness?

“Then there’s a larger question on who are we considering the experts? Who are we centering as the voices? Who are we leveraging in terms of positioning as a teacher? What is the teacher? Technically speaking, we’re all teachers and students. You go into the space and learn as much as you give, right?” says Price. “Typically, when you think of wellness events, wellness brands—all these things that we see—the majority of the people who are positioned and leveraged as experts happen to be white men and white women, or very racially ambiguous. You won’t see a front-facing person who is South Asian. You might not see a front-facing person who you can clearly tell is black.”

3. What type of wellness is represented?

“When you look back to these communities, a lot of the wellness practices that we’re now doing in the West have been practices that [white] people vilified or penalized for in the past. Now, in the West, we have shamanism, we have voodoo, we have yoga, we have all these practices that when people’s homes were colonized, they were told that this is bad.

The question then becomes, says Price, “What type of wellness is being represented and who is for?” This kind of perspective lets you look at a practice from the outside-in. “You’re engaging in a larger conversation about reclaiming those spaces,” adds Price.

4. Who informs what wellness is?

If only white people teach yoga, we alone shape what it is and so many people (and rich traditions) get lost along the way. That’s why Price constantly advocates for events—in the yoga world and beyond—that represent BIPOC leadership and practitioners. Recently, she says, The Well Collective held a pop up where BIPOC yoga and meditation instructors taught classes to the broader Toronto community.

“That meant that a white person could go and practice with someone who is BOPIC. Now you’re centering a BIPOC voice, you’re centering a BIPOC experience, and you’re learning from a BIPOC expert. Some of the white people who came to experience the conversations I’ve had through i rise and through The Well Collective have never had the experience of being taught yoga by a black person, a South Asian person, or an Asian person.”

BIPOC individuals who attended the event, meanwhile, got to experience a practice where they were the majority and they saw themselves in the instructors. “It was also a big deal for the teachers to be able to be seen because the other part for us as black or BIPOC practitioners is that we don’t really get the opportunities like our white counterparts when it comes to getting the jobs at yoga studios or in wellness spaces. Our credibility is always second-guessed,” Price says. “To be placed front and center in a room where people are coming to see you and get to experience can also be really validating for them.”

These questions aren’t ones that fall solely on Price and her community to ask. Everyone can critique their own wellness practices this way. If you’re asking the question, “Why is yoga so white?”, your next questions should be, “What can I do to support BIPOC communities and make yoga for everyone?”

“Colonization is a very individual thing. It’s all about dividing and conquering,” says Price. “The impacts of colonization are continuously rippling throughout the world. So to really reclaim these practices, to center them back to the community rather than the individual, to look at the practice of being well as a model of community care, that’s a way for us to redefine ourselves.”

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